Isay front porch, you think Grandma's: balustrade railings, turned posts, beadboard ceiling, maybe a gabled roof. But the modern porch -- and, yes, there is such a thing -- is a study in minimalism. Even though they're sometimes little more than an open-air raised platform or a modified stoop with a sheltering overhang, these often-spare spaces serve the same purpose as granny's porch did. "The front porch is a transitional zone between public and private spaces and a place for people to gather and say hello and goodbye and to engage with your neighbors," said Michael Roehr, co-owner of RoehrSchmitt Architecture in Minneapolis. And, no matter what the style, a front porch extends a welcome to visitors. "The porch is an interesting symbolic space in the sense it's a formal place where neighbors can sit and chat. It's also a signal that this family is friendly," said Clifford Clark, a history professor at Carleton College in Northfield.

That symbolic space -- where homeowners read, rock and snoop at the neighbors -- has been around for centuries. But its prominence has waxed and waned.

Porches past

In his book "The American Porch," Michael Dolan traces the porch back to ancient Greek and Roman structures, but places the glory days of the porch in the 19th century.

"Victorian homes had a variety of porches: the front porch, the washing porch off the kitchen and back sleeping porches," said Clark. "It was a cool place to sit in the evening and they were an important part of the landscape in the 19th century."

With the advent of air conditioning, the porch was seen as unessential to the efficient ranch houses of the 1950s and '60s and largely disappeared. Porches made a modest comeback in the 1980s and '90s, but the growth of attached garages and sidewalk-free suburban subdivisions reduced the need for a place to meet and greet.

"I remember visiting Lakeville and people would sit in their driveway or in their garage and say hello to people walking by because they didn't have a front porch," said Clark.

It wasn't until the new urbanist and walkable neighborhood concepts caught on in the early part of this century that porches made a true renaissance.

Inside out

Now, local architects say their clients are asking for front porches when they remodel older homes or build new on infill lots.

"We knew we wanted a front porch because it's comfortable, friendly and neighborly," said Jim Hagen, who recently built a new home in Minneapolis with his partner, Jeff Oishi.

Instead of adding a traditional porch to their Craftsman-inspired house, they decided to go for a raised patio with a quarry tile floor and a curved roof.

When Roehr renovated his St. Paul bungalow, he designed a no-frills raised-cedar platform with concrete steps down to the yard. For Roehr, a porch was essential to connect inside and out.

"The modern porch is more about the landscape than about the house," he said. "It's a combination of plantings and pathways and platforms that introduces you to the idea of going into the house."

The landscape can also determine the design and how a front porch is used by owners. Jeff and Shelly Zierdt built a contemporary flat-roofed home on a wooded site on the Mississippi River. The mod recessed front porch faces the road, not the water.

"It wasn't designed in the sense of a place to sit and drink lemonade but as the primary entry and to provide shelter," said Bryan Anderson, an architect for SALA Architects, Minneapolis.

Even though the thoroughly modern porches may stand out in older neighborhoods, they're being welcomed, for their purpose if not their look.

"I'm glad people are making a nod to the front porch even though they are more minimalist," said architect Phil Rader, who founded the BLEND awards (an acronym for Buildings and Landscapes Enhancing the Neighborhood Through Design). "It's important not so much architecturally, but socially."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619